Two Palestinian women in London experience the present while differently recalling the past in “Lipstikka,” an unsuccessful bid to explore how trauma can change perception and memory. Jonathan Sagall’s first helming feature since his 1999 debut, “Urban Feel,” has stagy dialogue and overly spaced delivery to match, but the real problem is how it takes everything several steps further than necessary. Two well-done, disturbing sequences can’t make up for the rather obvious directorial manipulation and hackneyed finale. Though reception is likely to be muted, “Lipstikka” will play the fest circuit thanks to its Berlinale competish slot.
Mostly shot in London with flashbacks in Ramallah (actually shot in Ramla), the pic reveals its biggest flaws in the Blighty sequences, which singularly fail to convince. Lara (Clara Khoury, “The Syrian Bride”) has a great house, a big car and a 7-year-old son James (Taliesin Knight). She also has a drinking problem and a cheating husband, Michael (Daniel Caltagirone).
One morning the flirtatious, sexually charged Inam (Nataly Attiya) shows up at her door. They were best friends and then lovers in Palestine, but it’s clear from Lara’s discomfort and coldness that she doesn’t want Inam around. Judging from the discussion, it appears the two haven’t seen each other in seven years, but as the pic’s tagline reads, “memory fools.”
The two converse in English instead of Arabic — a big mistake, as neither actress seems entirely comfortable with the language and appear to be thinking of the lines rather than the feelings that generate the dialogue. Sagall has Lara insist several times on speaking only in English, presumably because she wants to fit in to her new surroundings, but like many elements here, it reeks of a plot device, or perhaps a marketing necessity, rather than a natural outgrowth of the characters.
Several brief flashbacks to Ramallah precede the two scenes at the pic’s heart, when teens Inam (Moran Rosenblatt) and Lara (Ziv Weiner) ignore the curfew, sneak into Israel and see a movie. Walking back, they’re admired by two young Israeli soldiers, Gadi (Gal Lev) and Boaz (Ofer Hayoun), who try to pick them up and then, when rebuffed, get ugly. This and a later, alternate recollection of the events rep the best sequences in the film — well lensed, disquieting and driven by Rosenblatt’s standout perf, which exudes a teasing confidence that masks more troubled emotions. They’re also the only scenes that don’t feel stagebound.
Sagall (an actor and playwright as well as helmer) means to show how the traumas of life in occupied Palestine inform and control the women’s psychological makeup, and while the idea is good, the execution lacks the subtlety he’s after. Overwritten, highly theatrical script lacks the easy spontaneity necessary for believable screen dialogue, and the “surprise” at pic’s close adds a hoary melodramatic flourish.
Khoury does her best to give her lines some depth, but even her alcoholism feels false, not in concept but in execution; it doesn’t make a dent in her life. British tonalities are all matte, a monotony of muted grays, whites and blacks lensed with an ultra-cold light. Some sound hiccups in the Berlin print need ironing out.
Pic’s Hebrew title, “Odem,” is the red color most frequently used for lipstick.